The other day I came across a newspaper article titled “Buddhist Bin Laden Wirathu unharmed by car bomb attack in Burma”. After some quick research I realised that the intended target of this attack, a radical monk preaches racial hatred against Muslims, happened to be the same one I met on my trip to Myanmar last year and had been given a private audience with, along with two other travellers I was with at the time.
This chance encounter was pretty random; we were going around the back streets of Mandalay on bicycles with no particular destination in mind when we passed a compound with what appeared to be a miniature version of Big Ben inside.
Naturally, we decided to take a closer look and snap a few pictures. All of a sudden we were aware of a crowd of young monks who had come out onto a porch to gawk at these strange foreigners who had appeared on their monastery. It turned out we had just entered the grounds of Masoyein, the largest one in Myanmar, with over 3000 monks using the premises.
After a humorous exchange with the young monks who were pretty excited to try out their 7 or 8 words of English, one of the more senior members asked us if we wanted to meet the head monk, to which we said sure why not.
We were lead into a private study to meet the “venerable Wirathu” and with the aid of an interpretor we had a pretty disjointed conversation with him. He told us he had been to prison for a bunch of years and had actually only been released a few months ago. I had assumed this to be due to taking part in the anti government protests in 2007 dubbed the “saffron revolution” because of it being lead by the monks (it turns out that he had actually been jailed for inciting racial hatred back in 2003).
During the course of the conversation we asked him about his time in prison, chatted about football and he said a lot about how he believed muslims were causing all sorts of trouble in the country. At the time I had heard a bit about the ethnic tensions in Burma and that there were ongoing riots at the time whilst I was there, however I was pretty surprised to hear this coming from a buddhist monk, whom I had always assumed were pretty non confrontational.
Just to make the situation more bizarre, during the course of the conversation he happened to be regularly updating his facebook status on his computer which from what I could see seemed to consist mostly of inflammatory stories about supposed muslim misdemeanours. On the topic of football, he agreed with Luc, a French guy who was one of the travellers with me, that Zinedine Zidane was by far one of the best football players to have graced the planet. Looking back this seems pretty ironic to me, as ‘zizou’ happens to be Muslim (albeit non-practicing).
We were then given a tour of the monastery grounds, taken upstairs to see huge classrooms filled with monks chanting in Pali.
It’s pretty mind blowing just how many monks there are in the city of Mandalay – reportedly around three hundred thousand monks (female and male). In fact there are about double the number of monks in the whole of Myanmar than there are in the army, which makes you realise how much power a figurehead like Wirathu, head of the largest monastery, could wield.
Having now read up a bit more, I gather that Wirathu has also been one of the main proponents of a movement called ‘969’, a Buddhist supremacy movement eager to create an apartheid-like state and urging people to boycot Muslim businesses. To find out more, take a look at this Guardian article.